When it pops up in one’s email inbox, “No Subject” doesn’t imply that the attached missive is devoid of content; it simply means the content is unknowable until the message is opened up and delved into. No Subject thus makes a slyly appropriate title for the sophomore release by the formidable jazz quartet East Axis. Where these four wide-ranging and inventive musicians are concerned, the shape a piece of music will take is never clear until its performance is well underway.
Due out January 27th via Brother Mister Productions, Christian McBride’s Mack Avenue Music Group imprint, No Subject, arrives with its first surprise in the line-up itself. That would be the addition of chameleonic multi-reedist Scott Robinson, who joins founding members Matthew Shipp (piano), Kevin Ray (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums) for this exploratory second outing.
Robinson may not seem the most obvious choice for a boundary-stretching improvisational band like East Axis, especially for those who know him through his more straightahead projects: longtime membership in the Maria Schneider Orchestra and the Mingus Big Band, or as an in-demand instrumentalist on the Dixieland and trad jazz scenes. But through his own ScienSonic Laboratories label he’s also released a series of adventurous recordings with avant-garde icons like Roscoe Mitchell, Marshall Allen and Milford Graves.
“When it came time to decide on a new member, we each came up with a list of about seven names,” Ray recalls. “Scott was the one name that was common to all three lists. What made him perfect is that we each knew of him from a different context.”
Robinson’s diversity is what enticed Shipp, whose restless curiosity is always in search of new and unexpected directions. “We didn’t really want an avant-gardist in the quartet,” the pianist explains. “Scott has been associated with Roscoe Mitchell, but he’s also played in the Mingus Big Band and with Maria Schneider, and regardless of the situation he’s never a cut-and-paste guy. He’s always very authentic in his language and feels at home in a lot of different grooves and settings.”
Adaptability was key in this case, as the two-day June recording date for No Subject marked the first time Robinson would play with the quartet – and in some cases the first time he’d even met some of its members. The band gradually found its way as a cohesive unit, and it soon became apparent that the choice was not only right but opened a number of new avenues for East Axis to investigate.
That includes the sensuous, ballad-like contours of “Sometime Tomorrow,” which grows out of a muscular Ray bass solo with a few moments of agitated rhythm, then follows Robinson’s alto clarinet into yearning, elegiac territory; or the Cubist bebop of “I Like It Very Much,” prompted by Shipp’s Monk-like intro and picked up by Robinson’s blustery, honking tenor.
“Scott brought us into directions we didn’t expect,” Ray says. “From the beginning, Matt, Gerald and I have thought almost as one unit, to the extent that we never have to communicate that much about the music. Scott veered off that by about twenty degrees, and it led us into some really interesting places.”
“In this band, the choices we make early on can really determine the shape a piece takes,” Shipp adds. “It could be Scott picking up a horn and his initial attack, timbre or dynamic; it could be my harmonic attack, or a downbeat or groove by Gerald. There are tons of choices that every band member can make, but one initial idea can really determine our direction. From there it’s a matter of being able to sustain and develop that construct.”
“At the Very Least” opens the album in a mysterious mode, Shipp’s ominous chords and elusive resonances paired with Robinson’s keening tarogato. The full-throttle “Decisions Have Already Been Made” roars out of the gate with Robinson’s blistering tenor, Cleaver’s breakneck speed and Ray’s bounding bassline. It’s followed by the mammoth grind of “Metal Sounds,” which pointedly suggests the assault of crushing doom-metal guitars. “Excuse My Absence” is droning and pointillist, while “To Be Honest” pares down to a chordless sax trio for a free-roaming search.
Another major shift from Cool With That, East Axis’ 2021 debut, is the brevity of many of the pieces on the band’s follow-up. The first album included one tune that stretched to nearly half an hour, and only two that clocked in under ten minutes. No Subject comprises a dozen tracks, only two of which squeak past the ten minute mark, with several coming in at less than three minutes.
“We decided we liked playing miniatures,” Ray says. “It created a different vibe to see how briefly we could play, especially after the last record.”
“Somebody Just Go In, Please,” is one of those miniatures, a single minute of raucous collisions and explosive outbursts that ends as abruptly as it begins. “I Take That Back” feels like unraveling chamber music, with Ray chasing Shipp’s spiraling lines while Cleaver scrapes his cymbals and Robinson adds bleary lines on slide cornet. The piano trio cut “See What You Think” steadily builds in intensity over its two and a half minutes, Cleaver undergirding Shipp’s insistent attack with frenetic accents.
In its staggering diversity and dauntless sense of discovery, No Subject represents this band in its first days; it remains to be seen how far and in how many directions it can go from here. As Shipp puts it, “We’re trying to generate music from multiple premises, multiple points, multiple rhythmic foundations and multiple harmonic foundations. We’re not trying to be post-Coltrane or post-Ayler or post-AACM; we’re not trying to be post-anything. We’re just trying to be four guys with an interest in a lot of different music and some improvisational prowess, that can get together, have fun and generate stuff that hopefully people find interesting and provocative and stimulating to listen to.”
East Axis· No Subject
Brother Mister Productions · Release Date: January 27, 2023(CD + Digital)
For more information on East Axis, please visit: https://www.facebook.com/EastAxis/